I was stoked at the chance to sit down (distantly, on opposite sides of the world, of course) with English mountaineer, climber, and BASE jumper / wingsuiter Tim Howell.
Tim is originally from southern England, near Portsmouth, but now lives in Switzerland with his wife. Fortunately, everyone in Switzerland has been “behaving themselves” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning Tim has still been able to sneak off into the mountains. For Tim, social distancing is really just the norm as his climbs and jumps tend to take him to some seriously wild and remote places around the world. Tim told me, “My motivation is to try and find those areas that haven’t been jumped off before, or those really obscure climbs.”
This motivation has pushed him outward and upward, even as high as 4,000m for jumps from Mont Blanc and Mount Kenya. Last year alone, he logged everything from big wall climbs to high altitude BASE jumps across Greenland, Iceland, Oman, Thailand, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, and Vietnam. Vietnam, in particular, was a big project, being the first-ever wingsuit flight in Vietnam. “I always say it was two years of planning, two trips to Vietnam for a 30-second flight. Totally worth it.”
That’s a pretty good summary of what motivates Tim.
Before chatting about his go-to BASE jumping and climbing gear, I wanted to get a bit more of an understanding about his transition into BASE jumping, since as a climber myself, I didn’t really know much about the sport outside its dangerous reputation.
You’ve been climbing for over 15 years but just got into BASE jumping about 6 years ago. How did you transition from climbing to BASE jumping?
A lot of the places that we climb, we see BASE jumpers and that was always sort of the next step for me: to be able to climb up something and then jump off it. The first time I saw BASE jumpers was in Thailand when I was climbing about 10 years ago. I helped one of the BASE jumpers climb to the top to her point of exit. The second time I saw BASE jumpers I was sleeping on a big wall 500 meters up and about 6:00 in the morning, a wingsuiter flew past me. It’s crazy to go back to these same places now and do these jumps from my first memories of BASE jumping.
Tell me a little about the actual process of getting into BASE jumping.
I find it is very similar to climbing, not just in terms of learning but in terms of ethics and rules and regulations.
Tim explains how a lot is left to personal judgement in terms of what you have the skills and experience to safely pull off:
A motivation for me is the challenge to try and mitigate the risk [of BASE jumping], especially in these really remote areas where you really can’t deal with any sort of injury. It’s really trying to gain enough skills to make a jump as safe as possible.
In terms of getting a mentor, nobody forces you to get a mentor or take a course but most people recognize that, since the risk is so high, you better do it the right way. You shouldn’t skip steps, or rush or learn the wrong way. A mentor is a good way to do it. There are also lots of BASE courses out, which ask for a minimum of 200 skydives. Skydiving is a necessity to get into BASE jumping because it’s where you learn your body position, where you learn how the tip works, and really learn how to fly, steer, and land a canopy.
How do you decide where you want to jump?
Climbing and jumping have always been about the aesthetics of what you’re jumping off or climbing up. People talk about ”beautiful lines” in climbing and that’s how I describe BASE jumping as well. It’s jumping off an arch, a steep cliff, a tower, and all these beautiful features. I have this never-ending list of jumps I want to seek out.
Then we switched gears to chat about, well, gear!
What exactly does a BASE jumping gear setup consist of?
Most important are my parachute and container (the rucksack that you put the parachute in). My setup is very lightweight. It’s designed by the French company Adrenalin Base [who] acknowledges that there are lots of people who want to do these alpine missions or very long highs to get to jumps. Everything is detailed and made to be very very lightweight.
Tim also explained to me that there are two types of BASE jumping: terminal (where you reach terminal velocity) and subterminal. Tim’s All-T Canopy is a subterminal velocity parachute which is “designed so that if it hits the cliff, it remains pressurized and I can fly away safely.”
This is paired with Adrenalin Base’s Hybrid Container, which is essentially an integrated full-body harness. Tim loves that Adrenalin Base has gone the extra step of rating everything under the UIAA rating scale.
He went to climbing manufacturers and rated his harnesses under the same regulations, so I know it’s very strong but still lightweight for me to climb with in the mountains. […] It’s even got a little abseil loop, so I can last-minute swap from my [Petzl Altitude harness] to my container.
Next is the backpack. Tim says:
I love my rucksacks. I’ve got a fetish for backpacks. I’ve got to have a different one for every activity. When you jump, you obviously have to jump with all your gear so a rucksack that you carry up all your gear in has to be very small so you can pack it away and then jump with a parachute on top of everything.
Tim gets his BASE jumping pack from the small UK-based company, Atom Packs, which makes custom packs that can even carry skis for when Tim does ski BASE.
This custom company made me one that I’m very happy with. I can choose exactly the thickness of the foam to wear under my harness and jacket. I also needed a roll-top because once you land, you’ve got this huge 260 sq. ft. parachute that you then just need to stash away. It takes an hour to pack it properly but in the moment you need to just ram it away. The stash bag needs to hold 60 L but needs to be very thin so you can wear it under all your jacket.
He also carries a Flysight GPS module. While Tim describes it as a “rudimentary little box with just one switch on it,” this crucial piece helps Tim track his speed, glide ratio, and pressurization of his chute, which can be especially important when flying close to one’s limit.
What about your favorite climbing gear?
A lot of Tim’s pursuits are what he calls “climb-to-BASE jumps.” As it sounds, that means he first must climb (either rock or alpine) up to the “exit point” from which he jumps, meaning anything that comes up with him has to fly down with him as well.
All the climbing gear I use has to be really really light and thus really really small. I often need to be able to put all the climbing gear in my pockets or in pouches on the front of my chest because my parachute is one my back. The worst-case scenario is something getting snagged. If my parachute gets caught in a carabiner or ice axe or crampon, it might not deploy.
I’m a big fan of the Edelrid Nineteen quickdraws. I think they are THE smallest and lightest quickdraws for alpine use. CAMP and Grivel also make some really light stuff. The Grivel Plume Screwgates are fully rated but tiny little screw gates so I use them quite a bit as well.
I also love the Climbing Technology RollnLock. It’s one of those little tools that’s so small but has so many uses. You can use it for assisted pulleys, ascending, simul-climbing (so if your second [climber] falls, he doesn’t pull you off) so I just always have that on me.
It’s worth noting that the RollnLock works with most ropes (8mm-13mm) and even webbing. In alpine environments, he opts for some of the lightest ice screws on the market, the Petzl Laser Speed Lights–the shorter the better!
GRIVEL Plume Screwgate Carabiner
Available directly from grivel.com.
Petzl Meteor Helmet
The helmet is another big one for me, and the newest Petzl Meteor is perfect. It’s got a magnetic buckle that’s spot on. On the back, it’s got a goggle clip so that when I’m flying wingsuits, it’ll keep my goggles on. It doesn’t delaminate because the lamination goes all the way under the foam and it doesn’t have a ridge on the top which means you can put a GoPro on, which is obviously the most important thing. [Tim laughs.]
Petzl Sum’Tec Mountaineering Ice Axe
The one bit of kit that took me absolute ages to find was the axe. Obviously, if you’re jumping with an axe you want to be able to take the head off. There’s no way to keep the axe on us without it snagging or penetrating us when we land badly. It was really hard to find an axe where I could take the pick off. This one is absolutely perfect. It’s a lightweight ski touring axe so I can take the pick off. It has a TrigRest* so I could do still do some technical moves with it and it’s so light. I have some little bungee straps and I strap that to my left side, out the way. I open my parachute with my right hand so everything is always out the way.
*TRIGREST is a removable handrest that improves the grip of an ice axe without a handle. Positioned on the shaft, its height is quickly adjusted without a tool. When positioned out of the way at the top, the ice axe may be used freely in walking position. – Petzl
Petzl Leopard FL Crampons
As for crampons, Tim shares:
Petzl makes the ones with Dyneema in between, and I use the ones with front and rear brackets, not the automatic ones because they have a tendency to fall off. I use crampon spike protectors and have a little Patagonia cube bag and put the spikes facing outward and strap them on my chest. That’s the last bit of kit to go on.
Tim is referring to the Leopard FLs, an all-aluminum 10-point ultralight crampon with Cord-Tec flexible linking system and tool-free adjustment capability.
La Sportiva Trango Cube Mountaineering Boots
No surprise La Sportiva’s Trango Cubes are on Tim’s list. These ultralight and breathable mountaineering boots were the winner of the Gear Institute’s Best New Gear award at the Outdoor Retailers Summer show. With features like a Gore-Tex lining, waterproof seamless construction, protective rubber rand, and exclusive Vibram One sole arranged with opposing Impact Brake System lugs, this boot is the fast-and-light alpinist’s dream come true. According to Tim:
Boots are really important for me as well. You need ankle support for landings as well a decent edge to be able to climb a certain grade before having to swap to rock shoes. [The Trango Cubes are] super lightweight and warm enough for missions at altitude.
What about clothing? Obviously you need stuff that’s warm but not too bulky.
I’m ex-military and five years ago, someone in my same unit started a clothing company so it’s really good to support another Royal Marine as well as one that makes high-quality clothing in the UK. I pretty much exclusively wear Jottnar clothing.
I’ve always been really particular about which trousers I wear. Attention to detail is really important so when you see companies paying attention to the simplest things: cuff adjustments on the hem of trousers and anti-snag fabrics (in a sport where snags can ultimately kill you).
Tim wears the Vali Mountain Trousers, a Schoeller® softshell, lightly insulated pant that features a proprietary 3XDRY® treatment. Tim appreciates the “kick patches on the ankles when you’re wearing crampons and the breathability. Plus it’s nice to wear something that’s not just black.” Must be the climber in him talking!
Jackets can be particularly tricky, Tim told me:
When you’re doing alpine mountaineering you always want to be light and fast. But when you’ve got a really specific weather window because of the winds you’ve got to be even lighter and faster. We critically analyze the weather and sometimes take risks when it comes to clothing, like not taking a hardshell or a down jacket. (Again, light is key.)
Jottnar has a down jacket called the Tor which is a really really lightweight jacket that I swear by now. It’s my go-to, especially in the summer at altitude. As an outer layer, they’ve got one called the Asmund which is a really decent hard layer but still pretty light.
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